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Bangkok Canals (Khlongs)

Bangkok Canal in the 19th Century

  • Throughout Thailand historically all cities and even small towns were surrounded by moats and earthen mounts, later to be substituted for brick or laterite walls. These moats could be many kilometers long, such as at Chiang Mai. The reason for their existence was to put a barrier to keep out elephants and men in battle. The supply of water itself became an issue in these fortified towns which soon grew in size to become large cities.
  • Thus a system of canals in Thailand became also a way to ensure supply and storage of water for crop production and water for consumption. The design and construction of the Ancient City of Sukhothai is evidence of the trend. Additionally the canals built to convey water soon become the means for transport the crops. The Ancient City of Ayutthaya was similarly positioned on the Rivers and developed an extensive canal system for the same reasons.
  • Following the destruction of Ayutthaya by the Burmese in 1767 and the creation of the new Kingdom of Siam at Rattanakosin Island on the Chao Phraya River the first canals constructed in 1782 were to the east and north of Rattanakosin Island to provide a complete circle of water around the new city and its brick wall fortifications.
  • This circle of water was duplicated yet again later with the digging of the second ring canal to create a further moat barrier between what was then called '' the Middle Rattanakosin ''. So the Rattanakosin city expanded east and south on the east side of the Chao Phraya River and so too did the system of canals.
  • In 1850 a third ring of canal was dug for the expanding city in the east. Soon the defence aspect for the use of canals changed with the development of war weapons, to a system servicing the new and extended areas of former marsh land for agriculture of sugar, rice and other crops for trade and consumption.
  • In the second half of the 19th century canals serviced the demand for expanding agriculture production. In 1890 the Rangsit project opened up an additional 500,000 acres of cultivated land. Additionally the system of canals provided a system for drainage as well as transport.
  • From the beginning of 1900 the Thai Government priority was then to construct roads which were becoming the more efficient system of transport, no new canals were constructed after 1915 and those that remained were neglected or their positions filled in to make space for roads.
  • The British envoy in 1855 to Thailand (Siam), Sir John Bowring wrote, "The highways of Bangkok are not streets or roads, but the river and the canals." By the middle of the 19th century it is reported that three quarters of the total population of Bangkok, then 400,000 lived either in floating houses or on houses on stilts or on river or canal banks. The Chao Phraya River and its off shoot water ways were the city infra structure and boats were the universal means of conveyance of goods and people and communication. Now Bangkok is home to nearly 11 million people and notwithstanding buses and motor vehicles, motorized boats carry hundreds of thousands of commuters each day. So the river and the canals are still important in this respect not withstanding the stench of sewerage and other putrid mixtures. Bacterial infection from contact with the water is a very serious problem.